Fact and Fiction in Documentaries

Documentary films exist to expose viewers to places, people and situations they might not otherwise be able to experience. But should they be taken with a grain of salt? The truth is, while documentary films claim to document reality, there is no guarantee that the 'reality' they show is not biased or skewed in some way. After all, these films are created by humans with specific biases and points of view. Learning to distinguish between fact and fiction in documentaries can help you have a more open-minded viewing experience when watching these films.

The following items highlight a few of the tricks documentary directors use to make their films more compelling, whether that director is documenting the food industry or politics.


A clip of an interview in a documentary might be completely real, but snippets can often be taken out of context. Statements that seem to mean one thing on their own can easily mean something completely different in the context of a full, nuanced conversation.

Small sample sizes

The documentary Super Size Me (2004) attempts to make a statement about fast food when the filmmaker goes on a diet of only McDonald's food and documents his declining health over a month. While thought-provoking, the film only shows the experience of one person; hundreds or thousands of other examples would be needed to provide valid scientific data. This technique is frequently used in nutrition and food-related films.

Manipulating nature

You might be watching actual footage of nature, but there's no saying how much the scene was altered before the cameras got turned on. Nature documentary filmmaker Chris Palmer has stated in interviews that common tricks include inserting trained animals into wild location scenes, as well as moving wild animals around to get the best shot.

Emotional appeal

As Mad Men's Don Draper could tell you, appealing to emotion is one of the oldest advertising tricks in the book. When a documentary wants to promote an agenda, it is likely to bombard the viewer with emotional images and language. This manipulation can be as simple as the choice of music playing behind a certain scene.

Telling fact from fiction

Not every documentary film uses fakery and tricks to keep your interest, and even ones that do can be worth a watch. If you want to tell fact from fiction in documentaries, simply watch with an open mind and keep an eye out for the common tricks filmmakers use. Try to figure out what the underlying message of the film is, and, of course, take it with a grain of salt.

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